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Splitting Books Open: Thoughts on the Digital Future of Technical Documentation
Andy Oram, Editor, O'Reilly Media, Inc.

Track: Emerging Topics
Date: Friday, July 30
Time: 10:45am - 11:30am
Location: Salon D


While technical publishers strive to adapt to new online media and formats, efforts at self-education by computer users are becoming a form of true grass-roots documentation. This talk discusses the strengths and weaknesses of each side--traditional books and user self-education--and suggests how they may converge. It offers suggestions for improving the educational effects of mailing lists, computing project web sites, and other community documentation.

The best traditional books possess many virtues: appropriate pacing, a knowledge of the audience, meaningful technical background, and good structure. However, these traditional books take too long and make too many compromises in order to reach a large audience and boost sales.

In turn, community education efforts (the rich environment of mailing lists, newsgroups, chat rooms, and project web sites) offer immediate answers to questions from knowledgeable peers. However, they suffer from time wasted in searching for information, results that are unreliable, and difficulties in knowing where to start.

User education can be improved by promoting active community participants to become formal contributors, incorporating professionals into community documentation, nurturing new users, pointing people to documents, and enhancing rating systems. The Safari Bookshelf is an example of professional online documentation that can enhance user efforts. Some other current limitations of the community environment for learning are the domination of English, a difficulty in respecting cultural differences and different learning styles, and gaps in documentation.

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